A minor amusement in these dark, cold months is playing The Times' daily online quiz. I am too mean to subscribe to The Times, but the Systems Administrator does and has added my laptop to his account. We consider our answers separately, and then compare notes on how we did in a spirit of amiable non-competition. There are fifteen questions, and my best ever score was twelve, my lowest a measly two. The below the line comments provide a benchmark on how easy or difficult that day's quiz was.
The really interesting thing about the quiz is not how much of it you know absolutely, but how far you can get on the basis of limited knowledge and guesswork. Some things are impossible to guess. If you don't know the names of any New Zealand opening batsmen or eighteenth century Austrian philosophers and have never watched Mad Men then summoning a name out of thin air is very unlikely to help. There is always at least one question on sport, and this is one reason why I am almost certainly not going to score a perfect fifteen. There is always a photographic question as well, today's being a photo of a smiling woman in evening dress with the caption Who is this retired Olympic champion? I wondered if she were a rower, since the UK seems to be quite good at that sort of thing, but it was Sally Gunnell.
Simply knowing stuff is not all that interesting. Given a photograph of a blue flower and the information that its botanical name was Nemophila menziesii, I knew that its common name was Baby Blue Eyes because I have spent a lot of time reading seed catalogues, and I did not guess forget-me-not because I knew that they were Myosotis. There was no skill involved, just boring one hundred per cent memorised facts. The fun starts when you know more than nothing, but not the definitive answer. In this photograph of a Renault, what model is shown? Now I know practically nothing about cars, so little that I was in my twenties before discovering that there was more than one kind of BMW and that series seven were impressive, series five fairly impressive, and series three risible. But I did remember those intensely annoying TV adverts with Nicole and Papa, so guessed Renault Clio, which turned out to be the correct answer.
If in doubt go for the first possibility that occurs to you. On this basis I decided that Robert Capa's photograph series The Magnificent Eleven depicted troops landing on Omaha beach, and I was right. If I'd spent any time thinking what beaches there were I would also have come up with Sword and Juno, but that would only have brought me down to a one in three chance. Sometimes the odds are quite good. A question about which colour rhino is the largest, oldest, or rarest, can only really be a choice between black and white. I guessed correctly that time, although faced with a photo of a Channel Islands cow and asked for the breed I did summon up my memories of the Jerseys I'd seen to decide that this one was probably a Guernsey. The SA, who has not been to as many agricultural shows as I have, went for Jersey, so the thing-you-first-thought-of rule is not infallible.
Sometimes you can work it out from the language. I did not know that Dentalgia was the medical term for toothache, but it seemed a good guess, given dentist, dentine, dental, certainly a better candidate than backache or stomach ache. I was pleased with myself the other day for managing to work out the Spanish word for a tongue from the French name for a type of long, thin biscuit.
I reckon that on average a good half to two thirds of my correct answers come from educated guesses. The SA says the same, and over the long run we do about equally well, though on slightly different areas of knowledge, or guesswork. If you were devising an assessment process for any serious purpose instead of a bit of fun you would need to be aware that differences in candidates' scores could be telling you at least as much about their willingness to guess as their actual knowledge of the subject.